Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Delivering Tough Messages in Tough Times

By Dr. L. Todd Thomas

Communicating change during tough times can be one of the greatest challenges facing leaders today. Change is always uncomfortable—even when it is for the better. But in the current environment, economic uncertainty and the far-reaching implications of the recession give a greater sense of general stress to the organization. Leaders are faced with the need not only to communicate change but to somehow engage their followers at a time when there are few things that can be stated for certain. This is not a feel-good exercise—it is a time to focus on the future.

Communicating change in times like these may be difficult but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. It means that change communication has to become part of a strategic plan. It requires forethought and a commitment on the part of the leader to openly and honestly address concerns and set direction. The following four principles can help leaders navigate the challenges of not only sharing information but engaging employees in the direction of the future.

1. Define the changed condition. Too many times, leaders jump into a “reporting” mode and share a lot of data and information with employees without providing the necessary interpretation. Your employees have access to the same public information you do: they read the same blogs, watch the same television and read the same magazines and newspapers that you do. Simply reporting information only highlights uncertainty. Take the time to consider what the impact of the situation is going to be and provide employees with a way to understand the impact.

2. Know what you are after. It is also important to determine the purpose of your communication. What is it you would like to accomplish with this communication? If you need to address rumors that are circulating in the organization, prepare to do so with some level of proof and understanding as to how those rumors might exist. If you want feedback from employees, consider what the key issues for feedback might be and how the input is going to be used. There is no right or wrong answer here, but it is crucial that you decide on your purpose before you start your communication.

3. Give employees multiple channels for feedback and dialogue. By the nature of being a leader, you have more information and you have it sooner than those who follow you. Some may be comfortable speaking up in a town hall meeting while others need the opportunity for one-on-one discussion. Small group discussions where employees meet together and identify their top two or three concerns can also be an effective feedback mechanism. Again, there is no perfect answer. Providing multiple avenues respects the needs of employees and allows them to choose the channel with which they have the greatest comfort.

4. Establish actions your employees can take. One of the greatest challenges for employees is in knowing what to do as a result of the information they are receiving. Your followers are looking to you for direction. Telling them to “Keep doing what you’re doing” creates a conflicted message because on the one hand you are talking about change and on the other you are saying stay the same. Don’t create busy work but use the unique talents and strengths of your followers to create a change environment. Perhaps you need employees to listen more closely to customer comments, or you want them to form some focus groups to identify the challenges for the future. Employees can only be engaged in moving the organization forward if they are actively invited to do so.

About the Author:

President of IMPACT consulting and Development, LLC ( Dr. L. Todd Thomas is a speaker and coach and author of several books, including The Leadership Integrity Quotient (TM): Establishing Trust as Your Trademark Strength and Stop Wasting Your Time: A System for Creating High-Impact Meetings. Contact:

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